Restore Forests: Restore Hope

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Meet Zarif Zahari, a Greenpeace Malaysia volunteer who joined Greenpeace Indonesia Forest Fire Prevention (FFP) team to bear witness and become a part of the team extinguishing fires at a plantation and forest in Tanjung Taruna, a sub-district of Jabiren Raya in the Pulang Pisau district of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.


I was nicknamed Safir by Greenpeace Indonesia’s Forest Fire Prevention (FFP) team. It’s a shortened version of Musaffir – an Arabic term for traveller because the FFP team had a hard time pronouncing my name. Plus being deployed in Indonesia for 8 days to bear witness and lend a hand as much as I could during the crisis, the name seemed to suit me well.

When I stepped out from Tjilik Riwut Airport in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan on August 8 2019, my nose was immediately struck by the unpleasantly suffocating air. It was unbearable, even when compared to Malaysia 4 years back. Pitch-black ash flew around like snowflakes. My vision was all blurred out – it was yet another dark day for Kalimantan. The radio reported school hours were shortened, but at a time like that, I thought it would’ve been better if the schools had been closed instead, for the safety of the children.

Smoke seen high above the clouds within the district of Kalimantan as I first arrived. © Zarif Zahir / Greenpeace Malaysia volunteer

I arrived at Greenpeace Indonesia FFP team’s base shortly after and was surprised as many people were gathered there, yet I was greeted like part of the family. The team had apparently just returned from a fire extinguishing mission, and still they all greeted me like I belonged with them.

A view of the burnt plantations and forests of Palangka Raya, Kalimantan. Nothing was left unscathed. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Meanwhile, the FFP team continue carrying out public advocacy to the people of Kalimantan focusing on the hazards of haze, or simply the danger of fire itself and how it affects our health and the community. During one of these trips, I had the opportunity to tag along with them to 2 of the local kindergartens attended by many. We displayed our equipment, full set of fire-proof gear and how to use them. Besides that, we distributed free masks to the children, teachers and parents. Oh, how disheartening it was to see kids running around without a mask on with this kind of situation!


The Underlying Meaning of Sacrifice

Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) is one of the most important festivals in Islam after Eid al-Fitri, as it’s a time in which we celebrate the true meaning of ‘sacrifice’ and the beauty of sharing with the needy. On Sunday, August 11, I spent my Eid al-Adha far from home where we celebrated the Eid al-Adha prayer, performed on the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah at 7am.

We prayed at Masjid Agong Darussalam, the capital’s largest mosque with men, women and children dressed in their finest. But I believe there’s more to it than just offering cattle. It was at this time I wondered what Eid al-Adha means for our FFP heroes. Being away from their families and not having a paycheque to pay the bills for the day makes them different, more resilient and amazing volunteers who sustain both activism and worldly-commitments to the fullest.

It was refreshing a Sunday; Muslims went to mosque while Christians went to church despite the unfortunate hazy situation. Palangka Raya is strongly united by religious practices, just as they are forever united against the haze and climate change.

The hazy situation does not stop these heroes from celebrating religious affairs. The true meaning of sacrifice can be seen through their spirit of volunteerism for the sake of the environment. © let Ifansasti / Greenpeace


Heroes Emerge from the Tightest Situations

It was on one of the nights when the team just finished documenting a small village called Tanjung Taruna. As we were travelling home, we noticed a small wildfire from the pitch darkness somewhere along the road. It was around 8pm. Unbelievably within a split second, the fire spread throughout the area.

It is simply stated in the FFP team’s Standard Operation Procedures (SOP) that extinguishing fires are very dangerous. But what’s written in textbooks are never the same as coming face to face with such a grim situation as this. Despite these dangers, the team quickly moved into the perimeter to analyse the situation before assisting to put out the emerging fire.

It’s depressing watching the earth burn unheeded.

Surprisingly a few of the brave local citizens volunteered to help extinguish the fires, putting out burning spots with tree branches. It was a massive fire, but we did what we could with the limited manpower and supplies. To think that they would take the time and risk their own lives in order to save the land is very reassuring – it encourages me to believe a part of humanity is restored even by tiniest bit.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”Jane Goodall


And the Fight Continues

Self-destruction looks like this. The Amazon is not burning. It is being burned. There is a difference. Same as Indonesia year in and year out. We know what it smells like. Malaysia is cloaked in both countless illegal open burnings, and haze blown in from Kalimantan and Sumatra.

This is peoples doing. To their villages. To their countries. To our planet, where it will impact all of us in horrible ways for decades to come.

My days with the FFP team reminds me of little Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, who inspired the world when she decided to go on school strikes following Sweden’s hottest ever summer on record. She then infamously travelled across the seas for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, denouncing world leaders for their inaction. The point is, you are never too late or too small to make a difference for the planet. Heroes are born amidst the struggles and hardships they face.

That’s why I believe the world could be a better world to live in without greedy, corrupt polluters, yet I now know this is impossible. Villains exist. But Heroes do too. The world could be much safer place with people like them; people like us – the unsung heroes that never stop standing up and acting out for our voiceless, fragile world.

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”Franklin D. Roosevelt

A volunteer of Greenpeace Malaysia, Muhammad Zarif bin Muhammad Zahari joined Greenpeace Indonesia Forest Fire Prevention (FFP) Team in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia for 8 days.


Mohammad Zarif Bin Mohd Zahari is an advocate and activist for both the environment and humanitarianism. A Landscape Architect graduate, he is also a Postgraduate student of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) with a Masters in Community Preparedness for Natural Disasters.